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A New Approach to Protect the Skin

July 2009

By Romy Fox

Psychodermatology: A New Approach to Protect the Skin

Have you ever noticed how different a person’s facial expression is when they are fatigued or under stress? A rested-relaxed person can appear years younger compared to when they are fatigued and/or stressed.

With the newly emerging field of psychodermatology, scientists are realizing that protecting our skin from accelerated aging is not just about using external sun blocks and moisturizers. Studies show that our emotions, particularly stressful ones, can unleash a torrent of free radicals and stress hormones such as cortisol that not only age our skin but cause a wide range of allergic and inflammatory skin ailments.1,2 Dermatologists are now recognizing that when emotions such as stress and anxiety are creating havoc within the skin, there is little in their pharmacopeia that can solve the problem. It is at the junction of the skin that physicians and psychiatrists truly see the interaction of the mind/body connection.

Protecting the skin from aging and disease is a two-fold process that involves addressing both internal and external factors. Fortunately, there are compelling data that a number of herbal compounds can provide important protection against the onslaught of psychodermatological issues.

The good news is that a new oral supplement features a unique combination of three herbal extracts to help protect skin from the inside out. The first two ingredients relieve the damage that emotional stress can inflict on the skin while providing powerful antioxidant protection against skin-destroying free radicals. The third is a fern plant extract that acts as an “internal sunscreen” providing protection against solar ray damage. Together, these scientifically proven ingredients can help offset the harmful effects of sunlight and stress for healthy, younger-looking skin.

The Skin Under Assault From the Inside

Psychodermatology addresses conditions that result from the interaction between the mind and the skin. Acting through the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, this new phenomenon is being called the “brain-skin connection”3 that may underlie inflammatory skin diseases triggered or aggravated by stress. Indeed, dermatologists worldwide are recognizing that significant numbers of their patients have underlying psychological components related to their skin complaints.4

It is estimated that anywhere between 30% and 60% of visits to the dermatologist are related to skin problems that result from psychological factors. The psychological impact of stress causes an imbalance of many factors in the body that can destroy vital components of the skin responsible for maintaining its elasticity and firmness. Inflammatory reactions in response to the emotional impact of stress can alter the integrity and function of the skin’s barrier.5 On an endocrine level, internal stress can also prematurely age the skin by increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol.6 By causing blood vessels to constrict, cortisol limits the transport of essential nutrients into the skin needed for necessary functions such as synthesizing collagen. In fact, the loss of collagen from skin by cortisol has been found to be up to 10 times greater than from all other tissues.5 Stressed individuals also suffer from lower levels of the anti-stress hormone DHEA, which benefits all parts of the body including the skin. Converted into the skin-friendly hormones, estrogen and androgen-type metabolites, DHEA has been shown in numerous studies to help maintain the youthfulness of skin cells.7,8

Examples of these stress-related skin disorders include:

Psoriasis – a chronic disease characterized by inflammation and thickening of patches of skin.9

Eczema – swelling, blisters and bumps, and crusting and scaling of the skin.9

Atopic dermatitis – a chronic skin disorder characterized by itching and red, scaly, or dry rashes.5

Seborrheic dermatitis – an inflammatory condition characterized by greasy scales and yellowish crusts, usually on the scalp.10

Hives – red, raised welts.10

Many people find that when they are stressed, they break out in pimples or hives, and their psoriasis, eczema, or other skin conditions become worse. Reducing stress may therefore offer the key to skin healing.

The Skin Under Assault From the Inside

Meditation, biofeedback, relaxing yoga, self-hypnosis, psychotherapy, and other stress-reduction techniques are helpful for inducing emotional well-being, which is known to affect the physical appearance of skin. Not surprisingly, many people notice that when they feel better, they look better. Another effective approach is to take the herb ashwagandha, a renowned adaptogen that acts in multiple ways to resist the stress that can damage our skin and other parts of the body. Adaptogenic herbs are distinct from other substances since they help to balance endocrine hormones and the immune system in order to maintain optimal homeostasis.11

Ashwagandha has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine and other Asian healing systems to treat stress-related diseases. Rich in flavonoids and steroidal lactones called withanolides, ashwagandha has a number of beneficial properties for safely combating stress and enhancing mood and cognition as seen in a recent human clinical trial. For this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, 98 chronically stressed adults were assigned to receive a patented standardized extract of ashwagandha. The researchers divided the study participants into four groups to receive: ashwagandha, 125 mg once or twice a day, 250 mg twice a day, or a placebo.12 Their stress levels were measured at the beginning of the study, on days 30 and 60, and biochemical and clinical factors such as blood pressure were measured at the beginning and on day 60.

The results were impressive. All three ashwagandha doses reduced stress, with a decrease in the volunteers’ levels of fatigue, headache, muscle pain, heart palpitations, dry mouth, insomnia, irritability, and forgetfulness. In addition, appetite and the ability to concentrate improved. After 60 days, the group taking the lowest dose of 125 mg once a day showed a 62% reduction in anxiety compared with placebo, with anxiety scores decreasing even further in the other two active treatment groups. Those taking the placebo did not show any reduction of stress (see Figure 1 below).

Seborrheic dermatitis
Figure 1

Figure 1. Effect on anxiety scores in chronically stressed adults after treatment with three different doses of ashwagandha extract compared with placebo.

Although the exact mechanisms of how ashwagandha works are not fully understood, an important action is its ability to lower blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol.13 Since cortisol competes with the anti-aging substance DHEA in the body, simply reducing excess cortisol has an anti-aging effect. After 60 days, the group taking ashwagandha 125 mg once a day showed a 14.5% reduction in cortisol levels and a 13.2% increase in DHEA levels compared with placebo, while the other two active treatment groups reported even greater benefits.12

In addition, all three groups taking the herbal extract saw a pronounced drop in the blood levels of C-reactive protein, a measure of inflammation within the body. Summing up their findings, the researchers reported that the “daily use of Withania somnifera (ashwagandha) would benefit people suffering from the effects of stress and anxiety without any adverse effects.”12

What You Need to Know: Prevent Skin Aging With Psychodermatology
  • The physical signs of premature aging are most apparent when internal factors such as emotional stress and external influences such as sun exposure and oxidative stress compromise the skin’s integrity.
  • The influence of emotional stress can damage the skin with a tidal wave of free radicals, stress hormones such as cortisol, and other substances that encourage the development of a number of allergic and inflammatory skin ailments.
  • Externally, unprotected sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer in the US. While topical sunscreens protect the skin, most people do not spread them evenly over the body, use enough to do the job properly, or re-apply them after long periods of exposure or after sweating or swimming.
  • Sun exposure also creates damaging free radicals in the body that can break down vital components of the skin that lock in firmness and elasticity.
  • A new oral supplement features a unique combination of three herbal extracts to help protect skin from the inside out.
  • The adaptogenic herb ashwagandha relieves the damage that emotional stress can inflict on the skin. Phyllanthus emblica is another herbal extract that provides powerful antioxidant protection against skin-damaging free radicals. The third ingredient is a tropical fern that acts as an “internal sunscreen” providing remarkable protection against solar ray damage.
  • Together, these scientifically proven ingredients can protect against the harmful effects of sunlight and stress to help keep skin looking healthy and beautiful.

The Skin Under Assault From the Outside

While ashwagandha does much to protect the skin against the damaging effects of stress, the body faces other dangers, including the constant assault of oxidants and free radicals. These damaging substances are produced by the body during normal and extraordinary metabolic reactions, and their levels can rise in response to sunlight, cigarette smoke, and other substances.

While warm sunlight feels wonderful on the skin, the moment ultraviolet (UV) light penetrates the skin cells, it begins triggering reactions that damage or destroy a number of cellular structures and components. These include the collagen that is responsible for keeping the skin elastic and strong and the hyaluronic acid that “holds” moisture in to give the skin a supple, “plump” look and also helps bind collagen strands together.

The Skin Under Assault From the Outside

Given that many of us face a daily onslaught of oxidants and free radicals, it makes sense to ensure a generous supply of antioxidants to combat both of these dangers.

New research is showing that a patented form of Phyllanthus emblica (from the Indian gooseberry) has powerful antioxidant and free radical-scavenging properties by virtue of the ellagic acid and gallic acid stored within the herb as hydrolysable tannins.14,15

This patented Phyllanthus emblica extract also has a special property that makes it especially helpful for protecting the skin. Sunlight striking the skin forces “storage proteins” in the skin to release iron. The presence of this iron spurs a chemical cascade known as the Fenton reaction, resulting in the formation of several types of free radicals that can damage the skin’s dermal matrix. These photoaging pathways generate dangerous reactive oxygen species that ultimately degrade connective tissue, a hallmark of both cancer and aging of the skin.16 Specifically, exposure to UV light increases collagen-degrading enzymes in the skin called matrix metalloproteinases16 and drives the breakdown of hyaluronic acid – the skin’s natural moisturizer.17

Phyllanthus emblica interferes with these photoaging processes by binding to the iron itself and shielding the skin against the destruction of collagen and other dermal matrix proteins.18 Most other antioxidants cannot do this. In vitro studies show that Phyllanthus emblica directly inhibits the synthesis of collagen-breakdown enzymes by 39%,19 as well as increasing levels of their natural inhibitors in the skin.20 In another in vitro study, a proprietary preparation containing patented extracts of both Phyllanthus emblica and ashwagandha extracts demonstrated an impressive 54% inhibition of collagen-degrading enzymes and an 86% inhibition of those that break down hyaluronic acid,19 highlighting the synergy of these ingredients in combating both extrinsic and intrinsic skin aging.